Sign in  |  Register

The New Criterion

The New Criterion is probably more consistently worth reading than any other magazine in English.
- The Times Literary Supplement

Weblog

 


Schubert and Tchaikovsky, big and small

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Mar 25, 2015 12:09 PM


Nikolai Lugansky

Last night, Nikolai Lugansky, the Russian pianist, gave a recital at the 92nd Street Y. His program was an unusual one: Schubert on the first half, Tchaikovsky on the second. Each half had a big sonata, preceded by little pieces.

And the big sonatas are unpianistic. That is, they are full of ungainly, awkward writing for the piano. But they are well worth learning, and performing.

Lugansky began with the Two Scherzos of Schubert, D. 593. These are almost never programmed. They are rather negligible Schubert, frankly. In any case, Lugansky played them responsibly—maybe a little too responsibly. They could have used a bit more mirth. They were on the sober side.

Still, Lugansky knew what he was doing, as he always does. He is an intelligent, diligent, well-prepared pianist.

His Schubert sonata was the one in C minor, D. 958. You can go many a moon without hearing this sonata, but New York has had it twice in the space of two weeks: for András Schiff included it on his recent program at Carnegie Hall.

About Lugansky’s playing of this sonata, I will make a few general remarks: It was totally responsible and reasonable, of course. Lugansky is incapable of laying an egg on you. But it was somewhat dry, percussive, and blunt. I myself would have appreciated an enhanced sense of line. More attention to legato and cantabile. Lugansky occasionally gave off a mechanical feeling. You could imagine the hammers of the piano going up and down.

When I talk about piano playing, or interpretation, I sometimes talk about peanut butter: There’s creamy and crunchy. Some prefer one to the other.

There is also an interesting question of nationality—which is not destiny, in music as in other areas. Lugansky’s playing of the Schubert sonata was more “German” than “Russian”—more Kempff than, say, Gilels. Again, we are in the realm of taste, not right or wrong.

Nevertheless, Lugansky was not quite right in the final movement. The music lacked its emotional power, as well as its slinkiness and mystery.

Beginning the second half of the program were excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons—three of them (though four is the number we associate with seasons!). In the main, Lugansky played them efficiently and sensibly. But the third excerpt, “November: On the Troika,” did not quite work. It was too blunt and unsinging.

The big sonata on this half was a really, really big sonata: Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G major, Op. 37. This is like a piano reduction of a symphony. It is terribly unwieldy—yet Lugansky wielded the first movement brilliantly. The music had its majesty and manliness. It also provided a thrill.

This was Lugansky’s best playing of the night, by far (in my judgment).

The slow movement was perfectly respectable, but the Scherzo was too slow and heavy, I believe. It was not much of a scherzo. The Finale had some due fire and rhapsody.

In the Y’s Kaufmann Hall, the audience was very enthusiastic, and Lugansky gave them encores—three of them. The middle of them was La campanella, that popular and finger-challenging etude of Liszt. Lugansky was a little stiff in it—he did not really do slink, on this night—but the piece was very accurate and exciting.

I’d like to end with a sartorial note. As a friend of mine pointed out, Nikolai Lugansky was not only in formal concert wear—old-fashioned tails—but also in white tie. This was a welcome break from the musical uniform of today: those proletarian black pajamas.

E-mail to friend


Appreciating Ernani

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Mar 24, 2015 01:59 PM


Plácido Domingo in Ernani at the Metropolitan Opera; photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

In Ernani, Verdi spreads the wealth around. He has four starring roles, really: for soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. The Metropolitan Opera came through on all four fronts last night. It also came through with a conductor—its music director, James Levine.

I occasionally hear that Levine is struggling, with his various medical issues. Maybe he has off nights, even poor ones. I keep attending excellent ones. In a recent Tales of Hoffmann, he was great. In last night’s Ernani, he was near-faultless. He was also full of energy.

What we heard was Levine-like Verdi (also Verdi-like Verdi). The opera was crisp, taut, brisk, and no-nonsense. Levine erects a No Flabbiness, No Dawdling Zone. He did not so much conduct as propel. Frankly, I would have liked a more relaxed fist now and then—but only now and then.

Act III is the genius of Ernani, and Levine was at his best here. The music was subtle, nimble, and tense. It was superbly shaped. Levine was all authority. The orchestra played extremely well for him, and that goes for the bass clarinet, who has a surprising starring role in this act.

The chorus, too, is important, in Act III and elsewhere. The conspirators, singing in hushed tones, were just right.

Our soprano, portraying Elvira, was Angela Meade. When she began, she was cloudy in sound, and also tremulous. Uh-oh. But she very quickly hit a groove, and stayed in that groove. She sang with unforced power. She rolled out a big, beautiful carpet of sound. And she handled Verdi’s coloratura bits with ease. She is a skilled, tight triller.

I had never quite noticed how many high C’s Verdi gives Elvira: one after the other. Meade was daunted by none of them. She never strained or grabbed. She fills a bill—Elvira—that is not easy to fill. A true Verdian, this gal.

Our tenor, our Ernani, was Francesco Meli. He was at his best in soft singing. He can really deliver lyric beauty. At the forte and fortissimo levels, he tended to push, perhaps in an effort to fill a big house. But, in general, he was both creamy and ringing, which is an enviable combination. Also, his Italian is a pleasure to hear.

I will skip over the baritone momentarily to take account of the bass: who was Dmitry Belosselskiy. He owns a beautiful instrument. What is it about basses and that part of the world? Something in the water (or vodka)? Furthermore, Belosselskiy was commanding, in his role of Silva. He did not overact, or underact, which could get him kicked out of opera.

Now to our baritone, our Carlo: who was one of the top Ernanis of all time, Plácido Domingo. In his mid-seventies, the famed tenor is doing baritone roles such as this one. And I will now say some things about him that I always say.

He is the “ageless Spaniard.” (I have said that since about 1995.) This is an exaggeration, of course. Last night, he had moments of creakiness. But he is almost ageless, and remarkable, virtually unique, for it.

He sings his Italian with a pronounced Spanish accent.

In these baritone roles, his “high notes”—F’s and G’s—are not high notes at all. They are comfortable tenor notes. You miss the strain, the push, the excitement. (The Metropolitan Opera’s program, by the way, still lists Domingo as a tenor.)

Last night, Domingo grew stronger as the opera wore on. Maybe with another act or two, he would have been world-beating.

Watching him and Levine, I had this thought: Have a conductor and singer ever worked together more frequently? How many times have they performed together? Hundreds, surely. The Met statisticians must know.

I also had this thought: If this septuagenarian (Domingo) showed up at your door, asking to sing Carlo in Ernani, and he were not one of the most famous and beloved singers of all time—would you hire him? I mean, strictly on merit? I don’t know. It’s a good question (if I say so myself). I think you would—for the musical and theatrical savvy alone.

The Met’s production is that of 1983, from Per Luigi Samaritani. It is now directed by Peter McClintock. I have some questions—Does Elvira really have to run? Does she have to stab herself at the end, with Ernani?—but the production is serviceable, at a minimum.

Before I leave, I wish to mention a fantastic name: Issachah Savage. It belongs to the tenor who sang the small part of Riccardo, Carlo’s squire.

Over the years, James Levine has often been asked this question in interviews: “What’s the difference between singers of yore and singers of today? What’s the difference between singers when you started out and singers now?” He usually says something like, “They’re better in Mozart today, and some other things, too. But they’re not as good in Italian grand opera, especially Verdi.”

Last night was a genuinely Verdian night. And I can pay it no higher tribute than this: It made me appreciate Ernani—which I’ve never particularly cared for—as never before.

E-mail to friend


Critic's Notebook for March 23, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Mar 23, 2015 08:37 PM


 

Lothar Osterburg, Under the El, 2011

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

 

This week: Ghosts, heretics, and metered poetry.

FictionA Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell (Deckle Edge): As the twentieth century closes, three middle-aged sisters decide to kill themselves. Their plan is in keeping with a family tradition of suicide, sparked in part by a great-grandfather who invented the chemical process that created the chlorine gas used in WWI and was a predecessor to Zyklon B. Departing from family tradition, however, they decide to leave a note. Though the book is dark, the author is able to move nimbly through time, and balances the novel’s weightier themes with the sharply funny, fiercely unsentimental perspectives of her three protagonists. —CE

Nonfiction: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Harper): Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s newest book will be released tomorrow and it appears to be as brave and insightful as her previous ones. In Heretic, she strongly advocates for an immediate Muslim Reformation, one that will bring Islam into the modern era and help it reconcile its core beliefs with the tenets of free societies. There are five key changes she proposes that will bring about this Reformation and may help to defeat radical Islam, one of the biggest threats existing in the world today. –RH

Poetry: Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, edited by Annie Finch and Alexandra Oliver (Everyman’s Library): After a century dominated by free verse, it would seem that metered poetry is making a comeback. The anthology contains brief explanatory headnotes and draws from a wide range of traditions to illustrate meters both familiar and exotic, bringing together some of the best rhythmic lines in literature. —CE

Art: “Lothar Osterburg: Babel” and “Intricate Expanse” at Lesley Heller Workspace (March 15-April 19): Two years ago, through the program "Arts for Transit," New York subway riders were treated to a remarkable image in the trains called “Zeppelins Docking in Grand Central." This steampunk photogravure and chine collé, of blimps floating through a detailed model of Grand Central Terminal, was the creation of Lothar Osterburg. Now at Lesley Heller Workspace, Osterburg returns with a set of photogravures of the Tower of Babel rising over the modern metropolis. The photos, and the remarkable model made of "wood, matboard, found book pages," straight out of Bruegel, are on view. Meanwhile, in the second gallery, The New Criterion's own Mario Naves has curated "Intricate Expanse," a group show featuring Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar, and Maritta Tapanainen. —JP

Music: Heidi Stober at Carnegie Hall (Friday, March 27): Heidi Stober, who made a charming appearance at the Met in last season's The Magic Flute, makes her New York recital debut in Carnegie's Weill Hall on Friday, with Craig Terry at the piano. Lesser-known works by Jake Heggie, Alec Wilder, and Henry Leland Clarke accompany chestnuts by Schubert and Strauss. —ECS

From the archive: McKim, Mead, & White’s architectural citizenship, by Michael J. Lewis: The influences of the architectural triumvirate.

From our latest issue: Travels with Paddy, by Ben Downing: A review of Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn, by Nick Hunt.

E-mail to friend


Dear old Golden Rule days

by James Bowman

Posted: Mar 23, 2015 03:55 PM


Peter Tait, the Headmaster of Sherborne Preparatory School in England — where, by the way, a preparatory school is one that prepares children to take at age 13  the “Common Entrance” exam into that special class of private schools that can call themselves “public”— wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph the other day insisting that “we should be teaching morals and ethics in our schools.”

 

We live in an age of everyone for themselves to lesser or greater degree and we’re not going to change that while the public conscience is unregulated, at least not without a significant moral shift. The current focus on mindfulness, on happiness, on well-being, and on character is all very well, but there is a more fundamental challenge for our schools. . . .We cannot put everyone in a single moral universe but we can teach them about cause and consequence, about the value of charity and community, and about having values that are not able to be measured in material terms alone. Before talking of developing grit and resilience, we should be offering the children in our schools an education in morals and values, for that would underpin their lives like nothing else.

My first thought on reading this regrettably vague prescription (which morals? which values apart from charity and community? and, for that matter, which community?) was to ask why we can’t just teach them to care what people think of them? Or, since that was formerly never something that had to be taught, why not at least stop teaching them that it’s somehow shameful to care what people think of them and honorable not to care?

Of course, one recognizes that such a recommendation bucks the contemporary but very long-running tide of individualism, which is still very much at the flood in education as it is elsewhere—notwithstanding some occasional eddies in the direction of “community”. But by “community” we usually refer to some other and larger organization than that of the school or family with which kids are naturally most concerned. And “community,” in any case, does not by itself imply anything very much in the way of morality, whereas the desire to be admired and popular among their own circles is already familiar to every child who hasn’t been shamed out of it. The child’s desire to fit in with his or her coevals may be cultivated for at least some good ends, as the school stories of Kipling or Wodehouse or Owen Johnson a century ago showed.

Of course, too, the child’s sense of honor may not be so useful for the inculcation of some “values” as it is for others. Patriotism, honesty, bravery, chivalry, some kinds of high-mindedness and even, for a time, Christian piety were included in the catalogue of schoolboy virtues in those days. Among those who were taught that lying, cheating, stealing or tale-bearing were low, sneaking, ungentlemanly things to do there was not much lying, cheating, stealing or tale-bearing to be found, as it would naturally have resulted in exclusion from the community. In that sense at least, morality could be taught. I am not so sure, however, that there is any corresponding nisus towards ethics, however well taught it may be, that brings with it a comparable native sense of why it matters, or ought to matter, to those being taught.

But there is another difficulty to the teaching of morality in our time, and that is the nearly universal superstition that it is all a matter of opinion. In 1943, C.S. Lewis delivered a series of three lectures at Durham University which were later collected into an indispensable little book called The Abolition of Man and which tackled — once and for all, I suspect, for anyone who has read it — this very question. His target was a school textbook by two teachers named Alex King and Martin Ketley, to whom he gave the pseudonyms of Gaius and Titius. They purported to teach children that questions of morality — and, interestingly, aesthetics — were merely matters of irrational and private feeling which need not detain the attention of the sort of hard-headed, rationalist school-children they meant to produce. After Lewis’s bombardment, at least for anyone who witnessed it, there was nothing left of Gaius and Titius but an oil-slick.

And yet, it is by now pretty clear that King and Ketley have prevailed in the long run, since their ideas about morality are on the point of institutionalization in America as part of the Common Core. In a too-little noticed blog posting on the website of The New York Times, Justin P. McBrayer, a philosopher at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, points out that the “English Language Arts Standards,” subheading “History/Social Studies” for grades six to eight claim to teach children to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment” in such a way as to imply “that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both.” But, as Professor McBrayer writes, “if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both” — including, of course, the moral principles that all but the most militantly secularist and rationalist parents (and even most of them, I’ll bet) would want their children to be taught. Conservatives are just beginning to wake up to what’s wrong with the Common Core. This article should jolt them into full wakefulness.

E-mail to friend


In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Mar 20, 2015 01:37 PM


Édouard Manet, Chez Tortoni, ca. 1878-80,  

Stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990

 

Recent links of note:

In Defense of Difficulty
Steve Wasserman, The American Conservative
"When did “difficulty” become suspect in American culture, widely derided as anti-democratic and contemptuously dismissed as evidence of so-called elitism? […] We should mark such an argument’s cognitive consequences. A culture filled with smooth and familiar consumptions produces in people rigid mental habits and stultified conceptions."

The Infinite Spanking of Jerry Saltz
Nicole Levy, Capital New York
Suspended from Facebook, excoriated by James Panero, Saltz still bestrides the art world like... well, no one's entirely sure what.

Why Are Art Heists So Fascinating?
Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic
To begin with, they're so much more tasteful than run-of-the-mill bank robberies. 

The Downside to Digging Up Cervantes
Ilan Stavans, The New Yorker
R.I.P.... or not. 

Why Are the Humanities Deteriorating?
Mark Bauerlein, First Things
Or, how not to defend a discipline. 

 

From our pages:

Monet's magpie in the snow
Jeffrey Meyers
A new interpretation of Monet's great work. 

 

E-mail to friend


Dark hall, bright pianist

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Mar 20, 2015 11:42 AM


Piotr Anderszewski

Last night, Piotr Anderszewski, the Polish pianist, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. He began with Bach and ended with Bach. In between came Schumann. An unusual and interesting program.

The lighting was unusual and interesting too. Carnegie Hall was dead black for this recital. (There was a light on the piano, of course.) It was more like an opera house than a concert hall. You couldn’t read your program. In a great many visits to Carnegie Hall, I had never seen lighting like this (or non-lighting?).

I was reminded of a recital by Ivo Pogorelich, the Yugoslavian pianist (as we used to say). This was at the Met Museum some years ago. The house was black and there was a lamp by the piano. Creepy.

One more word about mechanics or atmospherics, before I get to the playing. Instead of the traditional piano bench, Anderszewski used a chair with a back—à la Radu Lupu, his Romanian colleague.

The Pole began his program with a big Bach work, the French Overture in B minor. Don’t let the name fool you: This is a lengthy and majestic suite, with a first movement labeled “Overture.” I will now make some general remarks about Anderszewski’s playing.

It was nicely sculpted. It had internal tension or rigor. Some of the playing was a little mechanical, but this did no real harm. There were some missed notes, but this only served to remind you that we were not listening to a studio recording. Bach’s dances had their basic character. The pianist showed a keen sense of dynamics. He also knows how to pedal.

As he was playing, I had a funny thought: Those who play Bach, and play him frequently, can be depended on to play him well. These performers are self-selecting. Do you know what I mean? If they couldn’t play him, they wouldn’t.

I had this thought as well: Would Johann Sebastian Bach be astonished to know that people were playing his keyboard suites on a grand piano in a grand hall such as Carnegie (with the lights off)? My guess is, Bach would not be astonished by much.

After the B-minor suite, Anderszewski played Schumann’s Novelette in F-sharp minor. You don’t hear this in a recital often. It was good to have it. Anderszewski played with tasteful Romanticism, sometimes elegant Romanticism. He is one smooth dude. He also has plenty of technique—plenty of fingers.

Pleasingly, he was willing to give in to the spirit of the novelette, which can be a little goofy. But in some parts he was too dry and contained.

The second half of the recital began with the Fantasy in C, one of Schumann’s best piano pieces, and one of Romanticism’s best piano pieces. One of the best piano pieces, really.

I had a concern about Anderszewski: Would he be free enough in it? I don’t think I had ever had that concern about a pianist. Usually they are all too free, and not disciplined enough. I also wondered, “Will he be warm enough? Or will he be Pollini icy?” (Maurizio Pollini, the Italian pianist, is a brilliant fellow, but you sometimes have to bundle up when you hear him.)

The Fantasy has three movements, and Anderszewski played the first nearly perfectly. It was both disciplined and free. It was exceptionally clear, and this clarity did not come at the expense of Romanticism or beauty.

In between the first and second movements, a jazzy cell phone went off. I thought this was pretty good timing. The phone did not disturb the playing, though it may have disturbed the mood.

When Anderszewski began the second movement, he was strangely subdued. “That’s all right,” I thought. “He will build up to grandeur.” Shortly after he began, a cell phone went off behind me, loudly. As she lunged for it, the lady exclaimed, “Sh**!” That was helpful.

Anderszewski remained subdued. This movement was without its freedom, swagger, and grandeur. It was not itself. And in the final pages, Anderszewski was unusually tight, suddenly missing his smoothness and fluidity.

In the last movement, he was equally strange. He was intimate, refined, and inward. Those things are all right. But this music ought to be sublime, rich, and ultimately filling. Anderszewski was stingily small-scale. He played the piano as if afraid to break it. The final movement was a letdown, and so was the Fantasy as a whole, I suppose.

But there was more Bach to come: the English Suite in G minor. Anderszewski brought all his Bach skills to the fore. The music was logical, feeling, and, most of the time, immaculate. The Sarabande was particularly fine. It was liberal but within bounds—a Chopin nocturne avant la lettre.

Some of the audience may have zonked out in the blackness of the hall, but people were enthusiastic for Anderszewski, and he gave them encores. A slew of them. He gave practically a second recital.

He began with Bartók’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District. These were impossibly smooth—beautifully sculpted—and marvelously flavored. It was the best playing of the night, probably. And he ended with three Beethoven bagatelles, one after the other, no pausing. He favored the gentle in these bagatelles, but they were first-rate, regardless.

He is an interesting man, Anderszewski. And an excellent pianist, and a distinctive musician. 

E-mail to friend


Sounds known and unknown

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Mar 19, 2015 12:28 PM


Yuja Wang and Michael Tilson Thomas

The London Symphony Orchestra played in Avery Fisher Hall last night, under the baton of an American maestro, Michael Tilson Thomas. He is popularly known as “MTT.” Last December, he marked his seventieth birthday.

First on the program last night were the Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The LSO should play these pieces especially well, shouldn’t they? Not necessarily: nationality isn’t destiny, when it comes to musical performance. And much depends on the guy waving the stick.

There are four Sea Interludes: Dawn; Sunday Morning; Moonlight; and Storm. The first of them expresses tension within calm, or, if you like, a barely masked tension. MTT and the LSO caught this quality. The second interlude, however, was a little careful and unflowing, in my opinion. Then it was a bit loud and heavy.

By the way, the sound in Avery Fisher Hall is supposed to be bad—but it was excellent where I was sitting. Vivid. The phenomenon of acoustics is puzzling.

How was the third interlude, Moonlight? I believe it was slow and labored. But the last, Storm, had its tempestuous impact.

The mood changed with the next item on the program: Gershwin’s Concerto in F (for piano). The soloist was Yuja Wang, the Chinese-born sensation. She likes jazz, as evidenced by one of her regular encores, “Tea for Two,” in the arrangement of Art Tatum.

Miss Wang favors dresses that are barely dresses—that are more like bikinis with some extra fabric. Last night, she stepped out in a sexy, sheer number that was demure for her. Practically a burqa. In any case, she looked sensational.

At the beginning of the concerto, the orchestra was adequate but stiff. It would remain this way throughout the concerto. Wang, when she entered, was Debussyan, as she so often is (whatever the music). She demonstrated fluidity, as always. And her sound lacked heft—a recurring problem for her, especially in concertos. She can be kitten on the keys. Last night, one often saw her fingers move but did not hear the piano, through the orchestra.

MTT must bear some responsibility too, right? Does Gershwin?

In the first movement, soloist and conductor had some coordination problems, as they would later. These were not major. Wang did some rushing. This was not major, either.

At the end of the first movement, many in the audience applauded, as well they should: this ending is made for applause. A pianist should acknowledge it, even if she doesn’t rise and bow. Wang did not acknowledge it (and neither did Tilson Thomas, who should know better).

The slow movement, that ingenious thing? The orchestra was sleepy and cautious. There was an absence of heart in that band, and apparently on the podium. Wang did her best to liven things. In the finale, the orchestra could have been far more precise and exciting. MTT was curiously stolid. Wang, again, did her best. She was not stolid. She was idiomatic and attuned.

There would surely be an encore, and I thought it would be one of Gershwin’s three preludes, or maybe “Tea for Two.” Instead, a stagehand rushed out to place a “music desk” on the piano (the part that holds sheet music). Wang was going to play an encore she hadn’t memorized?

It turned out to be a piece by the conductor, You Come Here Often? He wrote it expressly for Wang. It is very familiar: a perpetual-motion jazzy number. There are many, many such pieces. We’re talking about a genre or type. MTT’s piece is pleasant, and Wang played it niftily. The composer listened thoughtfully in back of the orchestra.

And all honor to him for composing. That’s a musician, a rounded musician.

After intermission came a symphony, the Second of Sibelius. This is a strange work, as Sibelius symphonies tend to be. I often cite Harold Bloom, the literary critic. “Strange” is possibly his highest compliment. If a work is strange, it is original, individual—all its own.

Sibelius indeed composes in his own private Idaho. Who can figure him out, after all these years?

A performance of the Sibelius Second depends on intangibles: mystery, anticipation, nobility, transport. I did not find MTT’s performance satisfying. Competent? Professional? Yes, of course. I applauded like everyone else, and I applauded sincerely. But I could never quite get lost in Sibelius. The spell was not cast.

The LSO did some virtuosic playing and some sloppy playing (bad onsets and the like). In any event, they are an outstanding orchestra. Soon, they will have a new music director, Sir Simon Rattle. He will be more consistent than the current chief, Valery Gergiev. But will the highs be as high?

Listen, Gergiev is a wizard. Sometimes he has no magic. But when he does—holy Moses, look out.

I would like to end on two footnotes (two more footnotes, you might say):

1) For many years, I have been writing about sounds in concert halls. Not musical ones. I mean plastic bags, dropped canes, wayward hearing aids, etc. For a blogpost on all this, go here.

Last night, there was a sound I had never heard before. It was like a sustained bell or chime. A fellow critic thought it was a hearing aid. I’m not sure. It was a pity, in any case.

2) MTT is celebrating his seventieth birthday in a series of concerts, including last night’s, I guess. Odd though it may seem, I still think of him as a whippersnapper and Bernstein protégé. I well remember Bernstein’s seventieth-birthday concert, broadcast on national television. Many of us fell in love with a young soprano, Dawn Upshaw, who sang “I Hate Music.” And Christa Ludwig ventured into musical comedy (“I Am Easily Assimilated”).

E-mail to friend


Romantic exuberance (and festive green)

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Mar 18, 2015 12:09 PM


Diana Damrau in the role of Manon and Vittorio Grigolo as Des Grieux; photo by Ken Howard

Last night, the Metropolitan Opera presented Massenet’s Manon, not to be confused with Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (same story, same girl). What you need for Manon, first and foremost, is a Manon—which can be tricky.

She must be a soprano who is light, agile, powerful, and dramatic. Good luck.

Last night’s Manon was the splendid Diana Damrau. To get the bad news out of the way: She was too small for the part. Too often, I couldn’t hear her. This was true even in the delicate aria “Adieu, notre petite table.”

But as Damrau herself once told me in an interview, “Your voice is your voice. You can’t go to the store and buy another one.” And Damrau has a marvelous voice. It is well worth straining to hear, if you have to.

It is flexible, sinuous, bendy. She can bend it like Beckham. Damrau’s voice is still fresh—but I will tell you this: For the first time, I heard her shrill and thin on high notes. (This was in the Gavotte.) But such blemishes were of little significance.

Damrau certainly knows how to act the part. Manon goes from ingénue to vixen to tragedienne. Damrau is occasionally a bit hammy, but this is better than bland or sleepy.

Whether in recital, concert, or opera, she has her “special ingredient,” as I have long called it: adorability. In the Saint-Sulpice duet, Manon sings, “Is my voice still a caress to you?” Always, Diana.

Her Des Grieux was Vittorio Grigolo—who poured beauty all over the house. That voice is loaded with sun, as if perpetually ready to burst into “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz!” (or “O sole mio”). Grigolo was a model of romantic exuberance. He was completely believable as the smitten, idealistic youth.

Let me stress something about his voice: It is loud. Lyrical, unforced, and loud. He sometimes sounded miked. He and his Manon made a mismatch in volume. But in other respects, they matched.

Running off to Paris, they ran up a longish flight of stairs, holding a B flat—and that note held, from both tenor and soprano.

I don’t know how you like your “Rêve,” but I like it fairly neat and Classical. Fairly straight, Schipesque (by which I mean, in the manner of Tito Schipa). From Grigolo, it was swoony and all wrong. But it was completely sincere and therefore right (sort of).

I thought he would be terrific in “Ah! Fuyez,” where you can let it all hang out. But even here he was vulgar, stylistically. Still, what a voice, and what a heart. Both were made for opera.

Speaking of being made for opera: Re-seducing him in the church, Manon stripped bare his torso, revealing beefcake. Isn’t beefcake supposed to come from baritones?

Speaking of them: There are two baritones in this opera, namely Lescaut and Brétigny. Those parts were filled by Russell Braun and Dwayne Croft—who are a lot alike. They are dependable, consistent, and beautiful-voiced. They are total pros.

It may seem like I’m damning them with faint praise, but this is not so. A beautiful-voiced total pro is worth his weight in gold.

In the part of Des Grieux’s father was Nicolas Testé, a French bass-baritone. To my knowledge, I had never heard him before. He has an enviable instrument: sizable and gleaming. On this occasion, however, he was a bit tight.

Presiding in the pit was another Frenchman, Emmanuel Villaume. He conducted with intelligence and commitment. Even in Massenet’s less inspired stretches—zzzzz—he conducted as if it mattered, a lot. The orchestra played well for him. Brass players were gratifyingly unblaring and unstumbling. The principal clarinet was a gratifying soloist.

The Met’s production is by Laurent Pelly, and I reviewed it when it was new (here). Last night, I found the Cours-la-Reine scene a treat. It looks Toulouse-Lautrecky. And it turns Manon into Dolly Levi. I still can’t explain that big basketball in the back, but I kind of like it.

Pelly is not only the director of this show, he is its costume designer. Those costumes are entirely fitting (in any sense you like). One of the girls, at the beginning, is in magnificent green. Last night, I thought, “Ah, St. Patrick’s Day.” There was plenty of green in the audience too—festive.

E-mail to friend


Critic's Notebook for March 16, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Mar 16, 2015 04:10 PM


 

Samantha Bittman, Untitled, 2014

Acrylic on handwoven textile

 

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in New York and beyond, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Candy, dreams, and rational control.

FictionThe Dream of My Return, by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions): Erasmo Aragon, an exiled journalist, dreams of leaving Mexico City to return to his native El Salvador. However, an encounter with hypnotherapy (undergone to cure an ambiguous medical issue) interrupts his plans, causing him to spiral into a state of fear and paranoia. Moya turns the tale into a meditation on memory and loss, one as lyrical as it is humorous. —CE

Nonfiction:  Lincoln and the Jews: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell (Thomas Dunn Books): When it seems as though historians have finally turned over all the stones of Lincoln’s life, Sarna and Shapell remind us that there is one side to the President that has long been overlooked. In their new book, which is being published to coincide with an exhibition of the same name opening at the New-York Historical Society on Friday, they reveal the full ties between Lincoln and American Jews. In Lincoln’s lifetime, the Jewish American population increased from 3,000 to 150,000. Many reacted to this sudden surge of immigration with anti-Semitism and refused to see Jews as their fellow Americans, but Lincoln chose to use Jews as his advisers (one of his closest friends in politics was the Illinois politician Abraham Jonas) and to push for their rights. In their research, Sarna and Shapell have used an enormous wealth of manuscripts and photographs from the Shapell Lincoln Collection and the Library of Congress, among other collections. Hundreds of images have made it into this rich book. –RH

Poetry: A Celebration of International Poetry: Adam Zagajewski and Clare Cavanagh, with Edward Hirsch (Monday, March 16): For the opening event of its 2015 series, A Celebration of International Poetry, the Poetry Society of America is hosting a bilingual reading of Polish-born poet Adam Zagajewski's work and that of his translator, Clare Cavanagh, in Washington, D.C. Following the reading, there will be a discussion moderated by Edward Hirsch (poet, critic, and President of the Guggenheim Foundation) of Zagajewski's and Cavanagh's poetry and translations, as well as contemporary Polish literature. Events later in the series will be held in six different cities and will feature, among others, Octavio Paz (Mexico), Alda Merini (Italy), Li Po (China). –RH

Art: between a place and candy: new work in pattern + repetition + motif, at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery (March 16-June 12, 2015): Curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar, this ambitious and expertly paced exhibition brings together a diverse selection of artists where pattern, repetition, and motif play vital roles in the inspiration, development, and completion of their work. The opening reception is tonight, March 16, from 6-8pm. —JP

Music: Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall (Wednesday, March 18): Fresh off her triumph in the Metropolitan Opera's La Donna del Lago, ?Joyce DiDonato will treat listeners at Carnegie Hall to an evening of bel canto singing. Joined by Lawrence Brownlee and Laura Claycomb, the American mezzo-soprano will present arias and ensemble numbers from operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Maurizio Bellini will lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in the two-hour program. —ECS

Other: The Surreal World of Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret in Conversation with James Snyder (Thursday, March 19): The celebrated Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret is known for his spare, tragicomic short stories.   Keret will speak to James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, about the paradoxes of modern life and his knack for transforming those moments into unforgettable tales. —CE

From the archive: Rational control, by Harvey Mansfield: Or, life without virtue.

From our latest issue: Barbarians among the ruins, by Anthony Daniels: On Cheltenham and the sad state of the West English town.

E-mail to friend


Levine’s Offenbach

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Mar 16, 2015 08:36 AM


Matthew Polenzani in the title role of Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann." Photo by Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

In January, I offered a review of The Tales of Hoffmann at the Metropolitan Opera. This is the opéra fantastique of Jacques Offenbach, which bowed in 1881. Now I am back with another word. Why? The Met has a different conductor and cast.

The conductor is James Levine, the company’s music director. When he began the opera on Wednesday night, the music was precise, bold, and masculine. It had gravitas. How does Levine do that? How does he get that sound, in work after work?

I could describe Levine’s conducting in detail, act by act, or scene by scene, but maybe a few words would suffice. He conducted Hoffmann with the same intensity and grandeur he would accord Beethoven’s Fidelio or Wagner’s Ring. Apparently, no one has told him that Offenbach’s opera is a romantic French nothing. Levine was vital from first note to last, bringing out the work’s full character.

Honestly, he made the thing seem like a masterpiece. It probably is.

Singing the title role, Hoffmann, was Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor. First, the bad news: Polenzani is probably a size too small for the role. Now the good news: he is still Polenzani, and he sings beautifully, intelligently, and winningly. Shadowing him as the Muse was Karine Deshayes, a French mezzo-soprano. In her upper register, she was strong and appealing; in her middle and lower registers, she was less so. But she was still an efficient Muse.

A standout of the night was Laurent Naouri, a French bass-baritone who sang the Four Villains. He brings several things to the table: a beautiful, rich, and large sound; a sense of drama; and clear, beautiful French. His performance of the aria “Scintille, diamant” glowed malevolently, just as it should.

Incidental intelligence, as my colleague Martin Bernheimer would say: Naouri is married to Natalie Dessay, the famous French soprano.

Audrey Luna, an American soprano, sang Olympia, the mechanical doll. Her voice does not rival, say, Renée Fleming’s in beauty. But it sounds very good up high, and I mean way up high. You’ve heard of a high A? That is, the note a couple of steps below high C? Luna sang the A above that A—and sang it splendidly. The note was in tune, sustained, and rather otherworldly.

Another American soprano, Susanna Phillips, was Antonia, and she sang with evenness and confidence. Her sound is nicely focused, unliable to spread. A Russian mezzo, Elena Maximova, made a suitably sultry and haughty Giulietta.

But I must return to Levine—who had the kind of night that reminded you that he is a great conductor. I don’t say that he is ready to play lacrosse, given his medical struggles. But I have seldom heard him better, in decades of listening to him.

E-mail to friend


The New Criterion

About ArmaVirumque

 

( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)

 

In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.

 

Follow us on Twitter:


 

Shortcut

www.armavirumque.org

 

To contact The New Criterion by email, write to:

  Contact

 

Subscribe to our newsletter!

* indicates required